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Provo • Jake Heaps played well enough Saturday night to win back his starting quarterback job at BYU although he probably didn't need to. There's a good chance it is now his by default the rest of the month, at least.
The Cougars crushed Idaho 42-7 in the late-night special in front of an announced crowd of 57,770 shivering fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium, but the story again shifted to BYU's quarterback situation as starter Riley Nelson left midway through the first quarter with a fractured rib and small pneumothorax (akin to a collapsed lung) and spent the night in a Provo-area hospital after throwing a 32-yard touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman.
Nelson's injury is "still being assessed, to find out exactly what it is," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said after the game, noting that Nelson "took a solid shot" right after delivering the ball to Hoffman. The coach said it is not known yet how long Nelson will be out.
Up next for the Cougars is another opponent with a subpar record, New Mexico State, then another bye week, so Heaps well may be the starter until December, although there are plenty of reports of players suffering similar injuries and playing the next week.
Heaps entered the game with just more than six minutes remaining in the first quarter and led the Cougars to touchdown drives on his first four possessions.
"Jake came in and I think managed the game well," Mendenhall said. "He threw the ball well, made a lot of good decisions, and got in a lot of quality work."
Heaps' only mistake was overthrowing an open receiver and seeing the ball was intercepted by Idaho's Tracy Carter.
No matter Jordan Johnson got the ball right back with a pick, and Heaps promptly threw an 18-yard touchdown strike to Ross Apo to make it 42-0 with 5:37 remaining in the third quarter, and the subs took over. Heaps finished 15 of 20 for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
"He played his butt off out there," said linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who keyed the defensive effort with a team-high 10 tackles.
"Jake came in and balled out," said running back Mike Alisa, who 99 yards on 10 carries. "That's what we need."
Heaps said he has prepared the past six weeks as if he was still the starter.
"I wasn't too nervous or anything. But it was really unfortunate that Riley went down. We are praying that he's going to be OK and that he will return quickly," Heaps said. "That's all I was thinking about."
An 82-yard touchdown run by Idaho's Princeton McCarty with about four minutes left in the third quarter ruined the shutout bid. The Vandals had 66 yards of offense including minus-6 passing yards before the long run.
The Cougars didn't punt until a few minutes remaining in the third quarter and Riley Stephenson jogged onto the field, having presumably kept his job after the struggles at TCU.
Before Apo's TD catch, Hoffman and Bryan Kariya scored two touchdowns apiece in the first half and Mike Alisa opened the second half with a 38-yard TD jaunt. The Cougars proved a bit of a point after Idaho coach Robb Akey said last July that BYU wasn't at the same level as the Vandals' other two big-name opponents, Texas A&M and Virginia.
And Heaps was at the forefront, zipping the ball all over the field with confidence.
"We pretty much did everything we wanted to do today, which is a good sign," he said.
Third-stringer James Lark took over for Heaps after McCarty's TD run, but couldn't get the Cougars into the end zone.
As well as the offense played behind either quarterback, the defense matched the effort; Idaho had just 63 yards in the first half and at one point in the third quarter had -6 passing yards.
Heaps wasted little time making up for lost time in his first meaningful action since getting yanked in favor of Nelson in the third quarter of BYU's 27-24 win over Utah State on Sept. 30. He drove the Cougars 78 yards for a touchdown on his first possession,
He was 3-for-3 on the drive, which was kept alive by a defensive pass interference penalty and included a beautifully thrown ball to Hoffman for a 29-yard gain.
Nelson was sharp in his two possessions, too. The Cougars' opening drive resulted in a missed 35-yard field goal by Justin Sorensen, but the next time they touched the ball, the Cougars drove 64 yards for a score, with Nelson throwing the 32-yard touchdown pass to Hoffman to finish his night going 4 of 7 for 56 yards.
R In short • Riley Nelson suffers a fractured rib in first quarter and Jake Heaps comes on to quarterback the Cougars to an easy win over Idaho.
Key moment • Heaps goes 3-for-3 on his first meaningful drive since Sept. 30.
Key stat • The Cougars had 298 yards of offense in the first half, Idaho had 65.